What’s in a name?
When the title is Pieces of a Woman, it’s a clue that reveals more than the filmmakers probably intended.
That’s because the protagonist isn’t the only disjointed, fragmented one. So is the movie that tells her story.
The woman in pieces is Martha (The Crown’s Vanessa Kirby, who won a Venice Film Festival award for her anguished, forceful performance).
She’s bidding a temporary farewell to her co-workers at a party celebrating the impending arrival of her baby. Equally excited is her blue-collar partner Sean (earthy, earnest Shia LaBeouf), an eager partner in the planned home birth of their daughter.
Once the life-changing moment is imminent, however, there’s a troubling sign: the midwife the couple has worked with is busy attending another birth. So a substitute (Molly Parker) arrives to oversee the process.
Everything seems fine. At least at first.
In an intense, extended sequence — captured in one unbroken take — we follow the birth of Martha and Sean’s daughter. And the sudden tragedy that ends their baby’s life almost as soon as it begins.
At this point, you may wonder how director Kornel Mundruczo and screenwriter Kata Weber could possibly top that.
The short answer: they can’t.
Pieces of a Woman means to be a heart-wrenching, character-driven study of how different people deal with devastating grief.
Initially, the movie exploits the contrast between Martha — who’s as numbingly frozen as the movie’s wintry New England setting — and the hot-headed, howling-with-heartbreak Sean, who reverts to old addictions to dull the new pain.
Instead of intimate emotional interplay, however, Pieces of a Woman would rather pile on melodramatic plot complications.
One narrative thread involves a criminal court case against the midwife — one that wouldn’t be out of place in an old Perry Mason TV episode.
Another focuses on Martha’s relationship with her imperious mother (a steely Ellen Burstyn), whose constant need to interfere is (over)explained in a monologue so showy and self-justifying it might as well be accompanied by a flashing neon “Oscar bait” sign.
Throughout, the able performers do their best to break through the movie’s stagy, self-conscious solemnity.
Alas, director Mundruczo seems more interested in hitting us over the head with symbol-alert imagery — from Martha’s endless solitary walks through bleak streetscapes to her haunting obsession with apples and seeds — to concentrate on the people in pieces.